I want to do homework.
Instead of an office,
I want to stay home.
At home and crocheting
And meekly obeying
The guy who comes home.
A popular song in 1949 from the musical entitled, Miss Liberty. The lyrics struck terror in my heart and in those of all the housewives of the 1960s: We were, to quote a line from our late 60's anthem “invincible” and we wanted “to roar.” To prove the I-am-invincible-woman trajectory—I got besides a houseful of kids, a job outside the house, the chance to take part in all sorts of movements, and in keeping with the “I’m-good-at-everything, not just crocheting” theme—the ability to master the art of fine cooking
Now I wasn’t planning on “making a pie that keeps a guy at home,” as that same song says. I had already mastered the technique known as casalinga, or “Italian homestyle cooking.” When I was 10, the daughter of an Italian American seamstress, I often had to “start the dinner.” (My mother had never insisted on her right to work outside the house, she simply had to do it to survive.)Where do these parentheses open? I picked up “this is the way you do it” hints from various relatives and cumare. I learned. how burnt garlic can foul a sauce; the way to know when ragu, (better-known as pasta sauce or gravy) is “ready”( the oil separates from the solids), and how to roll bracciole.
It was all good stuff, and all grudgingly imparted by women who so jealously guarded their cooking secrets they were reluctant to share them even with their sisters—never mind their sisters-in-law. If they were forced to share a recipe, they made sure that at least one ingredient was either incorrectly measured or missing. Yet these women had effectively managed to turn any three-foot-square open area in the front or the back of their house—in what was then called South Brooklyn, comprising Carroll Gardens through Prospect Park to Green Wood Cemetery—into burgeoning gardens heavy with basil, tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini, or as they called it—cucuzze—and, of course, figs. Among their specialties were verdura—greens of all types in salads and steamed; minestra—greens in soup; and frito misto—fried greens—each popular, particularly at upscale restaurants today.
So, in the 1960s, I had acquired not only classic cooking techniques but also a way to blend them with the stuff I had learned from the black-kerchiefed old ones in Brooklyn. (Usually they were in black mourning attire to commemorate, on a sliding scale, the death of a loved one. The scale ranged from least time to most time spent wearing black, depending on the closeness of and the affection for a particular relative. For a cousin of a brother-in-law, two months; a parent, at least a year; a spouse, the rest of their lives. As often happened, some deaths occurred within weeks or months of others on either side of the Atlantic because many in their families had remained in the old country; women wearing black for the rest of their lives was not unusual.
And I, a working woman—a working mother—with a multicolored square of Indian cotton tied around my hair, was fulfilled, gratified, eager to share recipes and to display my culinary magic. I bought enameled, cast-iron cookware, wielded wooden spoons, and stayed up till 2 a.m. chopping, mincing, roasting, and baking, the night before I was to give a dinner party. Over the years, I transformed little-known fish, odd cuts of meat, even tripe into sumptuous dishes.
In very short order, my family grew smaller; one of the kids seemed always to be going off to college. I spent less time at the stove and more time at the gym, on visits to college dorms, and–on what I originally insisted was my right—working outside the house.
But the satisfaction that cooking gave me never went away. The input of the cumare. combined with the skill that was now in my fingertips—working ice-cold sweet butter into chilled flour for pastry—in my palms—kneading dough for a perfect challah—and in my head—reading cookbooks became my almost favorite bedtime activity. I began to apply to simple meals. And the dishes often required little more than pasta, olive oil, and garlic. (Many were a revisit to my just-married, new-mother-with-a couple-of-babies lean years.) The kids who called from their first off-campus apartment would ask me for recipes that were—like the people I discouraged their dating—fast and cheap.
The intangibles I had picked up from the cumare became very helpful. Although my mother was a fabulous cook, she wanted with all her heart to be an American cook. Steak, pork chops, clam chowder, Western omelets, mashed and fried potatoes were her stock in trade. Sunday gravy? She made that out of necessity—the relatives, especially the father she adored expected it.
Oh, there were times, I fondly remember, always holidays, when she succumbed to the scents of zeppole frying—savory, filled with anchovies; sweet, dusted with powdered sugar—and the vanilla of sticky struffoli dough. My grandfather enlisted for culinary endeavors at Christmas and Easter. His stubby, work-hardened hands kneading the dough, yellow with egg yolks. And my mother rolling it into a dowel shape and passing it on to us kids for slicing into tiny pillows with a butter knife. My grandmother standing over a vat of bubbling oil at the stove next to the kitchen window waving the curtains away from the burners. And the gray Formica table on the shiny chrome legs shaking under the pressure of hands big and small kneading, and cutting before setting up the presepio, or Christmas crib, for the baby Jesus.
Easter again brought us all together around the kitchen table. My grandfather slicing and dicing prosciutto ends because they were cheaper than a center cut, salume ends of Genoa, Sicilian, and soppressata—saved for weeks before the baking binge—basket cheese, ricotta salata, and provolone. Like a well-oiled machine, the assembly of what we called pizza chiena, or “full pie” (now served in restaurants as Pizza Rustica) took place on Spy Wednesday night in South Brooklyn in a third-floor tenement kitchen overlooking a backyard with a fig tree, and above a cellar that housed an old wine press, which gave the hallway a heady aroma year-round. Urgency prevailed. The baking had to be finished before Holy Thursday when, in keeping with tradition, everyone had to visit at least seven churches. My grandmother rolled the yeast-raised dough to fill the huge broad pan in which she baked pan espagna, or birthday cakes, many times a year.
My mother beating two dozen eggs with a rotary egg beater. Her guard down as she approached a task she had been performing since she was old enough to reach the table. At that moment forgetting about her desire to be American, to not have spoken Italian as her first language, to keep from shouting as she was taught in her public school fire safety class in third grade, “I smell gas; quick everybody downstairs” (her usual hilarious recommendation whenever she or my grandmother put a match to the antiquated oven to preheat it).
When the dough became sufficiently puffy, it was time to fit it in the pan. My grandmother would drape the dough in the pan. My mother would smooth it out, stretching it so the dough would extend beyond the rim of the pan. And my grandfather would pour the many-pound filling into the pan. My grandmother would stretch the top crust over the dough. My mother would flute the edges, brush on egg glaze, sprinkle with sugar, run the tines of a fork through the glaze to decorate the pie, and sprinkle varicolored jimmies randomly over the pie-and as a final fillip cut a hole in the center of the top crust for the steam to escape.
My grandmother would cut the pie on Holy Saturday afternoon—after we returned from the Mass of the Resurrection and Lent had officially ended. With the “alleluias” still ringing in our ears, I would be dispatched to bring slices to uncles, aunts, friends—no one lived more than three blocks away. And I would return clutching a cache of slices from uncles, aunts, friends. Then the critique began: This pie is too salty. That pie is too sweet. This crust is too thick. That crust is too thin. The decision: Our pie is best.
Now, I slice and dice center-cut prosciutto de Parma, prosciutto San Daniele; artisanal salume; and cheeses I go miles to find. I use a high-speed mixer to beat organic eggs into a creamy, ivory-ribbon-forming stream. I have learned that pate brisée—ice cold sweet butter, ice-cold flour, kosher salt, ice water–makes a finer, flakier dough than the yeast-raised one. And I do distribute slices: via express mail to children and friends living on another coast, to neighbors, and to Italian, Irish, Polish, and Jewish colleagues and friends.
But no one offers a slice in return.
“It’s too hard to make,” they tell me. “It takes so long to put together,” others say. “Where did you find the time to do this?” they ask.
I tell them that the pie doesn’t take very long to prepare if, first, I conjure up an image of a tenement kitchen with a white-enamel sink with bare legs exposed, a huge colander draining rcotta in that sink, and a large bowl of eggs with apricot-color yolks, and a rotary beater leaning on the bowl, resting on the kitchen table. I’m transported to a time when women worked outside the kitchen because they had to, not because they believed they had to. I ride the train of memory past the1970s sneaker-shod women in business suits, the suburban homes my kids grew up in, the weddings, the graduations, the jobs, the deaths to arrive at my destination. It’s one of the most satisfying trips I’ll ever take. And it begins with a few cups of flour.
I use the recipes not only on Christmas, Easter, and Saints’ Days but also for dishes that appear as appetizers, picnic lunches, special occasion entrées, and multicultural offerings that kids are asked to bring to school now and then.
As I prepare them, I can taste the salinity not of the Mediterranean, but of the loose olives picked from a barrel at an Italian market in Brooklyn; not the honey that nuns continue to make in a Medieval stone convent, but the vanilla sugar that a local pastry shop put on sale each year at Easter; not a just-sliced prosciutto on a fresh baked panini—always consumed on a small stone wall sprouting with rosemary on the side of a road in Tuscany, but the licorice-anise smell of fennel seeds as a Court Street butcher stuffed sausage meat into casings. I smell the sun on my back not as I walk up a hill in Umbria, but as I plod uphill on streets past avenues where family and friends lived on my way home from the “city” (better known as Manhattan); not the lemons that hang heavily on trees shooting up from terraces in Salerno, but the heavily sugared coffee with hot milk that I would bring my grandfather when he came home from work; and not the perfume of a halved Italian white peach dripping with juice, but that of a precocche or almost overripe deep blush-colored early autumn peach bought from a peddler who made his rounds on a horse-drawn wagon through the streets of Brooklyn.